Fraser firs with a shot of Jameson.

Photo by Amelia Caffaro.

Photo by Amelia Coffaro.

It all started with a guy and some sandy land. Eleven years ago, Lisa O’Malley struck gold on a blind date with a Mequon man who, like her, owned 100 acres of farm property. Her north Grafton acreage along the Milwaukee River – a plot that was bought by her parents in the 1960s – boasted sandy, loamy soil. This type of dirt – a rarity in Ozaukee County, where clay-based soil is the norm – piqued the interest of her date. It was “perfect for growing Fraser fir trees,” says Rick O’Malley, Lisa’s now-husband and co-owner of Trees For Less Nursery. “We joke that he married me for my soil,” says Lisa.

As a test, they planted 3,000 Fraser firs in 2005. The conifers thrived enough that they were able to open a Christmas-tree farm. As the only Fraser-fir grower in southeastern Wisconsin, the O’Malleys tend to 10,000 fir trees at their Sand Hill Farm.

Rick and Lisa O'Malley. Photo by Amelia Caffaro.

Rick and Lisa O’Malley. Photo by Amelia Coffaro.

Every weekend between the Saturday before Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, cars full of families crawl up the winding gravel road to either cut their own tree or buy one pre-cut. Lisa sweetens the purchase with Jameson shots, and provides mistletoe for a kissing op. She’s seen families grow up with this annual tradition. One group of 50 relatives always comes the day after Thanksgiving and tailgates for the occasion. The O’Malleys offer up hot chocolate and cookies to round out the holiday merriment.

Buzzing around the property on a John Deere utility vehicle in October, Lisa occasionally stops to pull weeds from beneath trees. “I planted every one of these trees,” she says, calling herself “the tree nanny.” The Fraser fir is “known as the Cadillac of Christmas trees because of its great needle retention and sweet fragrance,” says Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. They’re also high-maintenance: The trees need to be watered by hand (sandy soil doesn’t retain water well) and de-coned (cones dry out the tree). “It really puts fun into the farm,” says Lisa, who grew up on the property.

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Lisa set her sights on the White House after learning that last year the White House Christmas tree was an 18-foot Fraser fir. In the meantime, this year’s crop will appear in homes large and small throughout southeastern Wisconsin. The couple donates a group of conifers to the food pantry and retail shop Family Sharing of Ozaukee County. “No kid should go without a tree,” she says. ◆


‘Branching Out’ appears in the December 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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